Seven top tips for incumbents

Did you win a new contract that has just started in this new financial year? Congratulations. Now your work and thinking really needs to start.

Incumbents face a special type of challenge when trying to hold on to business that they already have.

From the customer’s perspective, you’re their chosen one. So, doing a great job is a just a given, and not a selling point.

Competitors are never going to stop knocking on the customer’s door. It won’t be long before the customer has seen you warts and all, and thinks they know everything you can do.

And in three years’ time – thanks to the recency effect – they won’t even remember most of the great things you are doing now. Instead, they’ll be focusing on the stuff-up that happened the week before.

That’s a lot of negatives you will need to compensate for, and there is no time like the present to get started. 

When incumbents go to re-bid contracts, they often find that the gap between the initial energy and effort expended to win it, and the energy they need to win again, is vast. That’s because the natural order of things is to decline. 

Here are seven things you need to do in your brand-new customer relationship to make sure you are in the best possible position to win again.

  1. Harness the momentum of continual improvement. The most successful suppliers fall quickly into a pattern of continual improvement as soon as they win the business. If you do no more than keep up with the basic requirements, you are setting yourself up to lose.

  2. Think like a challenger and keep bringing them new ideas. Competitors won’t stop thinking about what they need to do to win the customer (or win them back) and neither should you.

  3. Make things simple – not complicated. Don’t get bogged down in unnecessary process or paperwork. This leaves you vulnerable to competitors who look like they have a magic bullet just because their offer is simpler than yours.

  4. Treat procurement as your ally, not the enemy. Because procurement doesn’t own services expenditure, it’s their job to satisfy the stakeholders who are actually using (and paying for) your service. Make sure you clue them in on all your achievements, improvements, and new ideas.

  5. Change your terminology. Within your contract team, start talking about your plans for contract ‘renewal’, not ‘rollover’. This sends an important message that you aren’t taking the business for granted.

  6. Beware the four horsemen of incumbency. When left to run rampant, Complacency, Confirmation Bias, Protest, and Shiny Object Syndrome will trample all over your efforts to win again.

  7. Keep asking yourself this one question - What’s the one thing that would make us look like heroes to this customer, if we could achieve it?

To help you put together a game plan to retain your most important contract or customer, get a copy of Winning Again.

It’s packed with real-life stories about what works (and doesn’t) when trying to hold on to the business you already have – and can’t afford to lose.

Reinforcement, not just repetition

When working on a tender bid, it’s quite normal to feel uncomfortable about the apparent need to repeat yourself over, and over again.

Tender requests often ask what appear to be similar questions, but in multiple ways. You might pick this up on an initial read of the RFP, or it may not become apparent until you start developing your content, and find you’re needing to cover issues that you feel have already been asked and answered before.

When you are working intensively on a tender bid, it’s natural to go a bit stir-crazy when re-reading your own content for the fourteenth time.

This is amplified when you are juggling multiple bids, for similar customers - all asking for the same information. 

But is repetition really bad in this context? Or is there a way to use it to your advantage?

Imagine for a minute that you’re making a cake for a bake-off competition. Your answers to the buyer’s RFP questions are the plain cake that everyone is making. Your selling messages are your secret frosting recipe that will make your cake taste much better your competitor’s.

Tender evaluators are like the bake-off judges, who are really just expecting to taste the cake they set out the recipe for. To wow the judges and win the competition, your combination of cake and frosting needs to work together to make your entry delicious – and irresistible.

Away from the world of competitive cake-baking, and back to the world of tender bids, I know it can be tedious to have to repeat information in response to poorly constructed RFP ‘recipes’. 

To be respectful of the process, and avoid non-compliance, try re-stating the concept in a slightly different way, rather than simply parroting previous responses.

Communication of selling messages in tender bids, however, is on a different level altogether. This requires reinforcement, of which repetition is only one component; the other two are illustration and expansion. 


Studies into the effect of advertising and marketing show that repeating messages will breed a level of familiarity that eventually leads to liking and preference among customers. A 2015 study from Sydney University found that this preference effect is more likely to occur when the message is repeated within the same context or medium. That’s great news for you, because tender evaluators are a captive, singular audience. You will get their undivided attention, at least for a limited period of time.

So if your selling message is worth saying, it’s worth saying more than once.


By the time a customer reads your bid, you will be intimately familiar with it. On the other hand, they will be seeing it for the first time, alongside competing proposals. It’s very easy in this crowded environment for important messages to not just be missed, but misunderstood.

Last year I delivered a study and report into supplier experiences of competitive tendering and dealing with procurement. In it, many suppliers expressed a lack of confidence that the buyer had actually read their submission. In fact, 33.4% said that they had ‘often’ or ‘very often’ been asked clarifying questions about their bid, when it seemed that the buyer had not read it properly.

I reckon the root cause of this problem is not buyer laziness, nor their tendency towards skim reading – it is lack of comprehension. This is something that suppliers can, and must, work harder to avoid.

Selling messages need to be illustrated in a way that makes them vivid and memorable. This means both literal illustration – through visuals - and narrative illustration, using words to explain complex concepts that may seem obvious to you, but are anything but to your audience.  


For a concept to be persuasive, it needs to feel complete. So rather than just repeating a selling message, think about how you can expand it, deepen it, and take it further. Is there an aspect you can bring to life that you haven’t covered previously? A piece of evidence you could add, or expand on? Something you could say to reassure and avoid objections from the buyer?

When combined, repetition and illustration help the customer to see what you’re on about. Illustration and expansion help them to feel it. And expansion and repetition help them to believe it.

Reinforcement requires nuance and imagination, where repetition on its own is lazy and boring. And reinforcement of your selling messages could just mean the difference between serving up a bid that is just like everyone else’s, and serving up the prize winner.

The story of the aspirational fish

People buy things that they feel good about.
If we have learned anything from the surprise result of the Australian federal election, it’s that big, ambitious plans can be more off-putting than they are attractive – something that those of us who pitch for business would do well to remember.
Way back when I worked in the print manufacturing industry, we sponsored a conference for magazine editors and executives. The conference program once included a panel of magazine editors comparing notes on what makes a successful magazine cover.
A magazine editor’s job is to know what their readers want to see and read, and to deliver this religiously.
One of the editors on that panel was from a well-known sport fishing magazine.
Magazines have a brand formula for their covers, and this particular magazine always featured a picture of a smiling guy holding a fish.
But - as the editor explained - this wasn’t just any fish.
He had discovered that what his readers really wanted to see on the cover was the kind of fish they had a decent chance of catching themselves, on a weekend out in the tinny.
Not an enormous fish. Not even a particularly exotic fish. Just an aspirational fish.
It turned out that 'aspirational fish' covers out-sold other editions by a wide margin. So, the aspirational fish became entrenched in the magazine’s brand formula; one that is so successful that its readership is still thriving, decades later.
In contrast, bid teams often have very little in the way of successful formulas to draw from, particularly in industries where major tenders are few and far between; where customer requests are wildly different; or where market expectations are shifting.
Under these circumstances I get worried when teams want to pitch really complex plans that are hard for a customer to relate to, particularly when they also involve uncertainty and change. I have seen this scare off customers too many times before.
When we pitch something new to a potential customer, we need to make sure it is:

  1. Aspirational – something the customer actually wants (not just what we think they ‘need’)

  2. Achievable – comfortable within limited time and resources, with only a few simple steps or stages

  3. Memorable – something they can easily explain and justify to others

You’ll find that if one of these elements is missing, your pitch is far less likely to be successful:

  • A pitch that’s aspirational and achievable, but not memorable, runs the risk of being overlooked in the decision making process.

  • A pitch that’s achievable and memorable - but not aspirational – might be dismissed as optional.

  • And a pitch that’s aspirational and memorable, but just doesn’t feel achievable, will be too uncomfortable for the customer to agree to.


The secret to getting great customer case studies and testimonials – fast

Customer case studies and testimonials are the most valuable content in your sales and marketing toolkit. They convince others without you needing to brag; they show how you have helped customers with similar needs; and they deliver social proof.

Gathering customer case studies and testimonials is also a great way to boost your conviction in the work you do, making it much easier to sell yourself. 

What’s not to like about that? 

Yet many of us struggle with volume, value and validation when it comes to customer case studies and testimonials. Maybe you just don’t have enough of them. Or, what does exist is out of date, is too dry and technical, or not really relevant to the kind of business want to win now. Or, there’s a tendency to talk too much about what you did, and not enough about the impact of your work from the customer’s perspective.

Customers who agree to participate in case studies and testimonials will often do so with goodwill and good intentions, but can’t be relied on to drive the process themselves. Instead, they may suggest you write something for them, and send it to them for sign-off. It’s best to avoid this, because: 

  1. Customers will often be prepared to say much nicer things about you than you are prepared to say about yourself,

  2. You don’t want all your testimonials to sound like you wrote them, and

  3. You simply don’t have a complete picture of the value of your work without the customer’s active input.

The best customer case studies and testimonials showcase the value of your work in a way that will sell you into future customers, contracts, or projects.

Therefore, they must be a collaboration between you and the customer. You set the framework, decide what you want them to talk about, and drive the process. They provide the colour, data and lived experience, and their approval to use it. 

So I’d like to share a simple, four-step process that is proven to deliver good quality customer case studies and testimonials – fast. 

It involves minimal, targeted effort on both sides, and overcomes all the major problems: getting customer permission, setting the right context, obtaining customer content and getting sign-off.

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Work trumps worry: how to free yourself from procrastination

Writing a tender response is a bit like sitting an exam. You won’t always know what’s going to be on it, but you can study and prepare if you know it’s coming. 

Surprisingly often, however, with a big tender on the horizon, many people want to ‘wait and see’ what’s in the Request for Proposal (RFP) before they do anything.

This seems crazy to me, because RFPs are designed to level the playing field – not to give you an advantage. Your competitors are going to get it too.

Waiting times may seem long, but when it comes, the submission timeframe will feel very short. 

So why don’t we always prepare ourselves properly for big opportunities, even though we know it will give us a better chance of being successful?

It’s easy to explain procrastination away as being ‘busy’, or needing to focus on other priorities, or reluctance to waste time doing work we might not later use. 

But I reckon it goes deeper than that. Taking action can trigger deep-seated anxieties for some people, making procrastination feel like a good thing – even though it’s not.

The psychology of procrastination

Procrastination is an interesting field of study into human behaviour.

Dr Joe Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and the author of Still Procrastinating: The No Regret Guide to Getting It Done, says that everyone procrastinates from time to time – but not everyone qualifies as a ‘procrastinator’.

Through his research, Ferrari found that some 20% of Americans are chronic procrastinators, who delay things whether it’s at home, work, school or in relationships. He identifies three types of chronic procrastinators:

  1. Arousal types, or thrill-seekers, who wait to the last minute for the euphoric rush of adrenaline;

  2. Avoiders, who may fear failure or success, but are largely concerned with what others think of them and would rather give the impression that they lack effort than ability; and

  3. Decisional procrastinators, who can’t make a decision, and feel like this will absolve them of responsibility for the outcome of events. 

Interestingly, even those who aren’t chronic procrastinators are much more likely to handicap ourselves through procrastination when the stakes are high.  

In a study of college students undertaken by Ferrari and Tice, it was found that students were more likely to hold off on studying for a test when they were told it was a meaningful evaluation of their abilities. However, when told they were only taking the test for fun, they would study for it much more diligently. 

Procrastination, then, is a psychological strategy we might employ in an attempt to ‘control’ situations that are otherwise beyond our control – like waiting for a tender to arrive. 

So how can you avoid the trap of procrastination when the stakes are high, and start getting on with things instead? 

1.    Acknowledge that you’re procrastinating – and why

Many studies on procrastination have examined this behaviour in an academic setting. One 2007 study found that a whopping 80-95% of college students procrastinated regularly when it came to completing assignments and coursework. A 1997 survey also found that procrastination was one of the top reasons why candidates failed to complete their Ph.D. 

According to psychologists Ferrari, Johnson, and McCown, there are some major cognitive distortions that lead to academic procrastination. See if any of these resonate with you: 

  • Overestimating how much time you have left to perform tasks

  • Overestimating how motivated you will be in the future

  • Underestimating how long certain activities will take to complete, and

  • Mistakenly assuming that you need to be in the right frame of mind to work on a project 

2.    Stop making excuses to justify your inaction

Researchers have found that procrastinators tend to lie to themselves by saying they ‘work best’ or are ‘more creative’ under pressure. Procrastinators also make false assumptions, like they ‘will feel more like doing it tomorrow’ or that they’ll ‘do it when this other assignment is out of the way’.

Remind yourself that by putting off until tomorrow what you could have done today, you’re depleting your stores of time and energy – both of which will be in far shorter supply when the clock really starts ticking down to a hard deadline.

3.    Break the cycle and get some help

For some, it might be enough to own up to procrastination in order to stop it. For others, stronger intervention might be required –particularly if you work in a team.

To break the cycle of procrastination, start right now:

  • Schedule workshops to plan your bid strategy.

  • Make sure they’re not just a talkfest – assign actions, and hold people accountable to them.

  • Hire an external coach or facilitator if you don’t want to take it all on alone.

Although it may feel OK in the moment, procrastination is not going to help you win an important bid. 

Taking early, decisive action is the only way to build your confidence and gain some level of control over a situation that is, by its very nature, uncertain. 

Heart or heft - what’s your proposal advantage?

There are two approaches you can take towards winning more proposals. One is to lead with your heart, making a strong, personal connection with potential customers. The other is to lead with your ‘heft’, or superior firepower to out-gun competitors.

Which advantage you lean towards will depend on the size and culture of your business.

Heart is a natural advantage in businesses where the senior folk maintain a hands-on connection to winning business. This includes small and medium businesses, and founder-led enterprises where the people at the top radiate passion for what they can help their customers achieve.

Heft is a natural advantage in large organisations that have dedicated business development resources, such as proposal teams. This gives them an edge in pitches where glossy first impressions matter, and in competitive tenders where customers seem intent on killing prospective suppliers with paperwork.

Using your ‘heart’ advantage

Proposals are a deliberate bid to make a connection with a customer, and leave them in no doubt that they should hire you.

When reviewing proposals for companies that want to improve their win rates, I ask to see a range of won and lost proposals. The only consistent difference between the proposals that win – and those that don’t – is that they make a genuine connection with the person on the other side of the paperwork.

I was once called in by a family-run business in the facility management market. This was a business that had grown rapidly, because the founders were so committed to winning local Council contracts that they’d been in the habit of writing all the tender responses themselves.

Unfortunate, twelve months prior to our conversation, they'd outsourced this task to a technical writing firm - and hadn’t won a single contract since.

Unfortunately, no one can sell what you do as well as you can.

Here are three things to stop, start, and continue doing to build heart as your proposal advantage:

·      Stop chasing after too many opportunities you are not well placed to win. Simply by being more discerning about the opportunities you go for - and politely (and personally) declining the ones that aren’t right for you, right now – you will save your energy for the ones you really want. If this is something you tend to struggle with, check out my one-hour online program From Chance To Choice for a framework that will help you to make this adjustment in your business.

·      Start investing in an exploration of your commercial value proposition, and use it to prepare collateral that you can use in all of your submissions. If you are tired of pulling all-nighters on large proposals, a library of pre-sales collateral that truly explains the value of what you do so that customers want to buy it is the best investment you will ever make. It also means that – eventually – you’ll be able to list colleagues in the proposal effort, so it isn’t all left up to you.

·      Continue the customer conversations and relationship building you’re great at, to maintain strong positioning well in advance of any competitive pitch. Upgrade your briefing process, so you’ll get better insights and knowledge from customers that add depth to your pitch. This will also help you to find that one piece of leverage that ensures the customer is only thinking about you when awarding the business.

Using your ‘heft’ advantage

Large organisations with dedicated business development resources have an advantage in ‘heft’. You can go after larger opportunities that require more data; deliver longer, more comprehensive submissions; and pull them together much more quickly than anyone else. 

One challenge you may face, though, is the very existence of in-house resources. This can give everyone else an excuse to outsource their brain by relying on the proposal team to do the work for them. 

This means that your proposal effort could still be balancing on a very small core of people – the same as a in a smaller competitor, which is relying on its leaders to win the work.

The risk to you is that when this competitor busts out its ‘heart’ advantage, it will stump your larger business, which is actually full of pitch avoiders who are using their ‘busy-ness’ to excuse themselves from putting in the work.

Here are three things to stop, start, and continue doing to build heft as your proposal advantage.

·      Stop letting senior folk take credit for wins they have made little contribution to, other than crapping on everyone else’s work or swooping in at the end to take the glory.  Expose these ‘pigeons’ by building pursuit positioning and proposal leadership into everyone's job description, and forcing them to report on exactly what they are doing during the process – and not just at the end.

·      Start a training program that broadens pitching and proposal skills outside your proposal team. One unintended consequence of relying on a small core of proposal professionals to do all the heavy lifting is that this diminishes this muscle in everyone else. Eventually, you’ll have a majority of people who can't write or present competently on their area of expertise in a way that makes customers actually want to buy it. This is where training and coaching can be extremely useful.

·      Continue working on your proposal collateral so that it explains your commercial value proposition in a way that blows your competitors out of the water. Got a new methodology that’s way better than your competitors? Then you need to be able to explain the heck out of it. Models and graphics representing your IP and methodology are powerful, because they take time and thinking, where bullet-lists don’t.

Make sure you have concise, convincing collateral sitting behind everything your company sells, which you can quickly and easily pull out and customise for proposals. For example, one of my clients routinely needs to bid for $100 million contracts and have these submissions completed within five days. They succeed in these very detailed, very complex submissions not only because they are well resourced, but also because they are so well prepared.


Timing your pitch to perfection

Successful pitches may start with why, but ‘when’ is increasingly important, particularly for time-sensitive and complex pitches like tender bids.

My 2018 study into supplier experiences of competitive tendering and dealing with procurement consistently – and alarmingly – found that tender time frames and requirements are getting harder and harder for bidders to service.

Complexity is increasing, while deadlines are shrinking, and tender response timeframes are now half what they used to be. This is a recipe for confusion, paralysis and buck-passing among pitch teams that are ill-equipped to deal with complex, compliance-heavy tender bids within shorter and shorter time frames. 

In his most recent book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Daniel Pink makes a compelling argument that leaders must start paying a lot more attention to timing if we want our teams to perform better, play nicer together, and dodge avoidable mistakes.

Here are three pieces of advice from his book that are particularly valuable for bid and pitch teams.

1.     How to put on the pace when you’re running behind – Pink refers to project midpoints as a ‘psychological alarm clock’. If your team is only slightly behind at the project midpoint (and they probably will be), you can use their tardiness to motivate them. He cites a series of studies by Berger and Pope that analysed 18,000 basketball games over a 15-year period, paying particular attention to the scores at half-time. They found that teams who were trailing by one point at half-time actually went on to win on 58% of occasions. Berger and Pope were able to replicate this result in experiments, concluding that “merely telling people they were slightly behind an opponent leads them to exert more effort” – and to win in the end.

If your bid teams are serial laggards, try introducing an artificial deadline in advance of the actual deadline. This will set the psychological alarm clock earlier, where it can give you the greatest psychological advantage.

2.     How to maintain focus near a deadline – Pink cites this (common) scenario. A major proposal needs to be out the door by 5pm today, but it’s incomplete, energy is slumping, and it’s not possible to pull away completely to take a restorative break. Instead, schedule a ‘time-out’ at 3pm, two hours before the deadline. Everyone stops what they are doing and takes 30 seconds to report on their progress; 30 seconds to describe their next step; and 30 seconds to answer the question ‘what are we missing’? After assigning who will address the missing pieces, the team schedules another time-out if necessary. This short, stand-up style meeting boosts energy, keeps everyone focused on the bigger picture, and encourages a cohesive result when you can least afford to lose momentum.  

3.     How to time pitch interviews to your advantage – If you are one of a lineup of companies pitching for business, the timing of your pitch can be just as important as your performance when you get there. Pink says that if you are not the ‘default choice’ (the incumbent), your best option is to pitch first, while the decision makers are fresh. Going first also confers the primacy effect – a tendency to remember the first thing in a series better than those that come later – and is especially helpful when there are five or fewer competitors. On the other hand, when you are the incumbent, it’s better to go last, or later. Decision makers are more likely to stick with the default late in the day when they’re fatigued, rather than earlier or after a break (when they’re revived).  

If there are many competitors, pitching last can also confer a huge advantage. According to social psychologists Galinsky and Schweiter, judges hold an idealised standard of excellence at the beginning of competitions, but as the competition proceeds, a new, more realistic baseline develops, which favours later competitors.

Cutting the crap, gaining trust and selling value: the hot topics of 2018

As the year draws to a close, many business development teams are working harder than ever and are looking forward to a well-earned break.

This year, I ran a study into supplier experiences of competitive tendering and dealing with procurement.  

The resulting comprehensive report, Smiling But Sinking, shows that competitive tendering is increasingly challenging and difficult for suppliers, mostly in ways that are entirely preventable. You can read a summary of the findings in SmartCompany.

Thanks for following me, and for reading The Winning Pitch this year. I wish you a Merry Christmas, a safe and happy holiday break – assuming that you’re getting one! – and hope that Santa brings you lots of business in the New Year.

If you missed them, here are the five top articles from my fortnightly business development blog The Winning Pitch in 2018, covering everything from avoiding waste to selling the value in what you do.

#1 - Crap in, crap out

Apparently, Swearing is Good For You: it’s even the title of a new book published earlier this year. That’s good news for bid managers, because this year’s hottest topic has been plaguing us forever. What can you do if you keep getting a huge dump of crappy content at the last minute, from the very people in the business that you are trying to win work for? Read the article to find out.

#2 - Why buyers don’t trust you – and what to do about it

In situations that are totally predictable, the question of trust does not arise. In buying and selling situations – by nature highly unpredictable – trust is always going to be a problem. In this article, I’ve adapted social psychologist Robert F. Hurley’s Decision To Trust model for the inherently distrustful world of proposals.

#3 - How long should your proposal be?

Good question, here’s the answer: ‘only as long as it takes to get you hired.’ If you think that’s easier to say than to do, you’d be right. Read on to find out why getting the size and scale of your proposal right is more important than ever, but also one heck of a challenge.

#4 - Building your proposal muscle

While learning comes from many sources, the most effective learning comes from doing; provided you already know what to do. This article explains five ways to build your proposal muscle after attending proposal training. If you or your team needs training, or could use a refresher, make sure to book into my 2019 Master Classes in Writing Winning Tenders and Proposals before all the spots are gone.

#5 - Because you’re worth it

When you sell complex services, the real enemy is not a customer’s demand for the lowest price. It’s having them understand the value of your product in the first place. This article explains why customers often ask about price before you know enough to give them an answer, and how to help them understand the cost impact of what they’re buying in a way that goes well beyond the price.

The four horsemen of incumbency

Re-bidding for business you already have is a challenge of biblical proportions.

There may be millions of dollars of revenue or profit on the line, and hundreds of jobs at stake within your business. And that’s not even taking into account the fallout should a major customer defect – very publicly – to a competitor. 

Yet many incumbent suppliers vastly underestimate this challenge, and exactly how huge it is going to be. 

Described in the Bible in the Book of Revelation, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse represent the evils to come at the end of the world. The first horseman represents Conquest; the second, War; the third, Famine; and the fourth is Death.

In long-term customer relationships, the four horsemen of incumbency are Complacency, Confirmation Bias, Protest, and Shiny Object Syndrome. 

Incumbents need to be alert to presence and impact of these four horsemen, or they will trample all over your efforts to win again.

The first horseman: Complacency

Have you heard the term ‘incumbency disease’? Complacency is an obvious symptom.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, complacency means self-satisfaction, especially when ‘accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies’.

Complacency can creep into any long-term relationship. If you’ve been with your partner for a while, you can probably remember when date nights and the ‘dress to impress’ phase gave way to takeout and tracksuits on the couch.

If you think that complacency couldn’t possibly be an issue with your major customers – not when they have you so comprehensively loaded up with KPIs and contractual requirements – think again.

Delivering against customer expectations is not a selling point, no matter how challenging it may be. In deciding to hire you, the customer killed off other options. If you want to win again, they expect more than simply what they are paying you to do.

As an incumbent supplier, complacency is a problem if:

  • Your team is so bogged down delivering against expectations that they are unable or unwilling to try anything new

  • Meetings are frequently cancelled, by you or by the customer

  • You stopped sending reports a while ago, because the customer stopped reading them

Left unchecked, complacency can lead to communication problems, which can erode the customer relationship you have worked so hard to build. 

The second horseman: Confirmation Bias

This one is harder to spot than Complacency, and potentially even more insidious.

Confirmation Bias is our tendency to notice new information only when it confirms what we already believe.

First named by psychologist Peter Wason in the 1960s, confirmation bias shows that human beings aren’t rational in the way we process information - particularly when we are emotionally involved. 

I recently asked a group of CEOs whether their people only ever gave them good news about their company’s most important customers. The burst of rueful laughter showed just how common this is. 

A study by research firm Kapta found that 38% of CEOs had been blindsided with bad news from their team within the last 90 days. It is highly unwelcome to find out there is a major problem with a customer when there is no time to fix it – like when a tender for an existing contract is just about to drop. 

As an incumbent supplier, confirmation bias is a problem if:

  • All your team feeds back to you is positive news

  • The prevailing narrative is that you’re already ‘the best’, and that competitors don’t have anything to offer the customer

  • Any inconvenient information that doesn’t support this narrative is stifled, glossed over or ignored

Left unchecked, confirmation bias can drill a lot of holes through your offer – holes that are obvious to the customer, and to competitors.

The third horseman: Protest

As the incumbent, your work is highly visible, and the customer’s team has seen you warts and all. While some may be fans, others won’t be, and their voices can be loud when agitating for change.

Incumbents are vulnerable to a protest vote in any long-term relationship, whenever individual needs on the other side are not being met.

We see this regularly in politics, where protest votes demonstrate dissatisfaction either with the choice of candidates, or with something that is going on in the political system. 

For example, in the recent Wentworth by-election, this Sydney harbourside electorate – held by the conservative Liberal party since Federation, and considered one of the safest seats in Australia – fell to high-profile independent Dr Kerryn Phelps.

Previously the seat of deposed Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Phelps achieved a swing of 29.19% by attracting protest votes from a large number of previously ‘rusted on’ Liberal supporters. An Australia Institute poll found that Mr Turnbull’s toppling was the biggest influence on ex-Liberal supporters (44%), followed by the government’s perceived inaction on climate change (28%).

As an incumbent supplier, you are vulnerable to a protest vote if:

  • The customer’s needs have changed, and you are not seen to have quickly or adequately responded to them

  • Vocal stakeholders aren’t getting what they need from you, even if you believe they are too low in the pecking order to really matter

  • There has been a change of personnel in the customer’s team, and the newcomers don’t know you, or have a preference for someone else

Left unchecked, protest votes can result in negative noise from detractors and distractors, which can drown out the more positive voices of your customer advocates and supporters. 

The fourth horseman: Shiny Object Syndrome

 Here is a depressing reality check for incumbents; studies show that people like new things, simply because they are new. 

Researchers at the University of York tested this idea by asking study participants to play a popular video survival game called Don’t Starve. In the first round, everyone played the same way. In the second round, half the group was told that their game would feature an “adaptive artificial intelligence” (AI) that would tweak the level based upon a player’s experience – even though this wasn’t true.

The “adaptive AI” group reported being more entertained by the game in the second round. They were more immersed in the game world, and expended more cognitive effort to play. All because they thought they were playing a new and improved version of the game.

There is a biological reason why we crave newness.

The mesolimbic dopamine system is the most important reward pathway in the brain. Sometimes called the ‘molecule of happiness’, scientists once thought that dopamine was related to feelings of pleasure only for things we’ve already done. However, it has recently been discovered that dopamine may be more related to anticipatory pleasure – looking forward to something that hasn’t happened yet. 

During pleasurable moments, dopamine is released, causing us to seek out a pleasurable activity over and over again. This may be why it is common for people to book their next holiday not long after they have returned from the last one.

As an incumbent supplier, you are vulnerable to Shiny Object Syndrome if: 

  • You are not constantly coming to the customer with new ideas on how they can compete better and do business better

  • Competitors are taking on this role, either in person or through broadcast channels such as social media, conferences and industry events

  • New ideas are being generated and discussed – but not by you

The recency effect tells us that the most recent experiences are best remembered. When your customer has a short memory for the great things you did, combined with a strong motivation for future reward, you had better be doing everything you can to ensure that the source of future reward is you.

Why don’t we see these horsemen coming?

There is a gigantic energy slump that takes place between bidding and re-bidding. Most suppliers spend this phase with an almost entirely internal focus on delivery.

This is where your incumbency advantage – the ability to know more, learn more, and influence more than competitors – can be quickly, and often invisibly, eroded. 

Incumbents who face a re-bid without a clear plan or any impartial, third party perspective are at risk of losing from entirely preventable factors. 

Getting external support is more vital in the 12 months prior to a re-bid than at any other time – including winning the business in the first place.

Social proof: the value of customer case studies and testimonials

Business and government buyers need what we all need when spending a lot of money on something unfamiliar: plenty of reassurance that it won’t be a horrible mistake.

That’s why customer case studies and testimonials are such an important part of your commercial value proposition, your pre-sales collateral and your proposal toolkit.

Think of customer case studies and testimonials as the shop window of your proposal. They help prospective customers decide you are worth a look. They engage interest by telling stories, rather than just relating facts and figures. They convince prospects to buy, without you needing to sell to them. And they showcase your value from the only perspective that really matters – another customer’s.

Why we value social proof

Human beings are, by nature, tribal. We have always trusted the recommendations of people who are like us, over anything that an organisation might want to sell to us.

This search for ‘social proof’ is baked into our buying pathways. We ask friends and family for recommendations. We search online for reviews and opinions. We are easily swayed by the experiences of others.

The explosion of product review sites over the last few years shows that social proof is more important than ever.

A study by Socialnomics found that 90% of people using social media trust peer recommendations, but only 14% trust advertisements. Another, by Social Media Week, discovered that we trust the recommendations of website reviews (54%) almost as much as the opinion of professionals (58%).

The problem with case studies and testimonials

Unfortunately, most organisations that sell to business and government struggle when it comes to developing customer case studies and testimonials. The problems fall into three main areas:

1.     Volume – there simply aren’t enough customer case studies or testimonials in your toolkit.

2.     Value – what does exist is out of date, is too dry and technical, or doesn’t relate to the kind of business you are pursuing now.

3.     Validation – Case studies talk too much about what you did, and not enough about the impact of your work from the customer’s perspective.

Three problems, with three simple solutions

What best describes the challenges you and your team are experiencing with customer case studies and testimonials? Is it volume, value, validation, or a bit of all three?

Here are three simple things you can do to resolve these problems, and to build the social proof that helps you talk about what you do so people want to buy it.

1.     If your problem is not enough case studies (lack of volume), start slow to build momentum. Stop trying to get 100 case studies done at once. It simply isn’t going to happen. Instead, ask each member of your team to deliver only one case study, and arrange a report-back session in a week.  The goodwill generated from sharing these success stories will build an appetite for more.

2.     If there’s insufficient value in your case studies, define the progress you helped each customer to make. According to Harvard Professor Clayton M. Christensen, architect of the theory of disruptive innovation, customers don’t really buy products and services; they ‘hire’ them to make progress in their world. When you can define each customer’s progress goal, you will create a more compelling context for describing what you did, and therefore the value of your results.

3.     If your case studies lack customer validation, make it easier for customers to give it to you. Asking customers for testimonials and outcome data can be tricky. There’s the issue of picking the right moment; should you write a testimonial yourself if they ask you to (no); and how to get them to follow through when they do agree. Here is a better way.

Choose a good time, like the end of a project, or where you’ve just done something you know they appreciate. Write a list of three things you’d like the customer to talk about, including the outcomes you’d like them to validate (would you say that this project was delivered five days ahead of schedule/what you were expecting?). Ask for five minutes of their time over the phone for an interview. Put them on speaker, and record what they say using the voice memo or your phone, or an app like www.rev.com. Have the interview transcribed, edit out anything unnecessary, and send it back to them to see if they would like to add anything (not for approval – they already gave that when they agreed to be interviewed). Done – and onto the next.

Not different - better

Are ‘alternative’ tender bids worth your time and energy? Frequently, no. Here’s why, and what you can do instead to make your bid more competitive.

You may have noticed that some Request for Tender documents offer the option of submitting a compliant and an ‘alternative’ bid. Often, the alternative bid will only be assessed if a compliant bid is submitted as well.

Should you go to the effort of developing an alternative bid, on top of your compliant bid?  

And if not, what other options do you have instead?  

The psychology of complex decisions

First, let’s look how people make complex decisions, particularly where there is risk involved. Buyers who are evaluating competitive tenders are in exactly this situation.

Prospect Theory, developed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, explains how people choose between different options (‘prospects’), and how we estimate the perceived likelihood of each of these options. In 2002, Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for this work.

Prospect Theory suggests that in making choices, we are influenced by several factors, including our level of certainty in the outcome, a preference for avoiding loss, and what they call the ‘isolation effect’:

  1. Certainty - we would rather accept a small but certain reward over a chance at a larger gain; 

  2. Loss aversion – we tend to focus on minimising losses, even where the probability of those losses is small; and

  3. The isolation effect – we tend to disregard any elements that are common to more than one option, in an effort to simplify, and focus on what is different.

Live experiments using Prospect Theory have shown that when choosing among several alternatives, people will tend to avoid losses, and optimise for certain gains. This is particularly true in high-stakes and complex decisions, where the pain of potential loss has more effect than any potential satisfaction that may come from an equivalent level of gain.  

The value of alternatives

So how can you help your customer to make a good choice – in your favour – and one that makes them feel that they are avoiding losses, while achieving a definite level of gain? 

One way is to offer alternatives and options within your own offer, rather than just being one of many companies competing for their business.  

To avoid overburdening the customer, you might offer a choice among three options, in ascending level of cost and value. This approach has a proven track record in consumer markets, and is also known as the ‘good, better, best’ pricing strategy.

Offering three options has the advantage of giving the customer a ‘choice of yeses’, rather than the more binary ‘yes/no’ of a single option.

Pricing consultant Rafi Mohammed, writing in Harvard Business Review, says:

“...when faced with multiple options, customers tend to decide more quickly whether they are going to buy something, using their remaining time to focus on what. Having made that mental shift, they typically treat the Good version as a sunk cost, which makes them more amenable to upgrading. Salespeople exploit this tendency all the time: For example, instead of detailing all the features of a $1,200 appliance, they emphasize that “for only $200 more” than the entry-level $1,000 unit, a buyer gets lots of extra bells and whistles. Rental car companies highlight the full-size sedan you could be driving for $12 a day more than the price of a subcompact car.”

Prospect Theory and alternatives in the context of competitive bids and tenders

When a buyer puts a Request for Tender out to market, they have (usually) gone to some lengths to decide on what they’re going to buy.  

As you may have discovered, it’s hard to completely change their minds at this late stage of their buying journey.  

There are just too many hurdles they would need to jump to entertain a solution that is radically different from the one they are expecting. 

In this situation, Prospect Theory indicates that we should optimise our offer to avoid losses and deliver certain gains to the customer. More than one option could be part of this offer. 

However, adopting three options - a ‘good, better, best’ strategy - is not necessarily the answer in competitive tenders, particularly if your ‘best’ offer will require a lot of work on your part to submit an alternative bid.

Let’s think of your compliant proposal as your ‘Good’ (or entry level) offer. Your Good tender bid should give the customer everything they’ve asked for, at your sharpest possible price. From a psychological perspective, this is the buyer’s sunk cost – the thing they’ve already ‘bought’ by writing a tender specification. A Good bid means you’re in with a chance, but this field will be very competitive. 

Because you’re the expert in what you do, you might want to do things differently to what the customer has asked for, in order to deliver what you consider the ‘Best’ (or premium) result.

There’s a risk in this though, as it will most likely involve deviating from the scope or specifications to make an alternative proposal. In a competitive tender, you’ll need to decide whether this is really worth your time.  

Is it worth developing a completely separate tender bid for a customer who hasn’t asked for it, is already fairly fixed in what they want to buy, and is formally evaluating multiple other offers, as well as yours.  

Enter the Upgraded Compliant tender bid

Competitive tenders usually involve a high-value, complex purchase for the buyer, and a lot more work for you as the seller. 

Rather than simply submitting a Compliant (‘Good’) tender bid, you may be able to pull ahead of the competition with an Upgraded Compliant bid that offers something tempting – and better – than they are expecting, but that doesn’t ask them to change their specifications in any meaningful way. 

This is a ‘Better’ tender bid for you, and them, because it doesn’t stretch their decision-making faculties past the point of comfort.

In developing your Upgraded Compliant tender bid: 

  1. Don’t forget that the customer’s primary need is to avoid losses. Avoid trade-offs against the scope of work, unless you can prove these are minor and won’t affect the outcome or the cost. 

  2. Identify three certain gains that you can deliver, preferably gains that competitors can’t offer (or won’t have thought of) and that don’t cost you, or the customer, extra. No one likes to pay more, but everyone loves an upgrade. 

  3. Gains should be proportionate to the size of the opportunity – higher in perceived value for more lucrative contracts - while also minimising the effort on the customer’s part to realise them. 

A word of warning, though; this is all about the decision-making behind your bid strategy, not the mechanics.  

Every tender request has different requirements, so make sure to check yours carefully to make sure that your Upgraded Compliant bid will still comply, and won’t be thrown out for being non-conforming. 

When is a proposal not a proposal?

A proposal is a commercial document, written with the sole purpose of convincing a potential customer to say "yes" to you. To achieve this result, proposals need three things – style, substance, and relevance.  

Style isn’t just about how the proposal looks; it’s about how it sounds, the stories that it tells, and how it makes the buyer feel.

Substance is the content of the proposal; it outlines the offer you are making to the buyer in enough detail that they can understand what they’re actually getting from you.

Relevance is the “fit” between your offer and how well it solves the customer’s problem, or, delivers something that they aspire to.

You’ll run into problems whenever any one of these elements is lacking.

Where there’s style and substance, but no specific relevance to the customer, you may as well be handing them a brochure. 

Brochures are generic documents. They may look and sound great, but what’s in them could apply to anyone – and often ends up appealing to no one.

If your business is in tourism or the retail trade, by all means, go ahead with a brochure. Brochures are a valuable part of the marketing mix in these sectors. 

But if you’re selling to business or to government, don’t bother. According to a study by Sirius Decisions, up to 70% of content and collateral created by marketing departments in business-to-business organisations sits unused.  There are much better places to spend your time and energy.

Where there’s substance and relevance, but a lack of style, customers read the proposal as if it’s a report.

Reports may be useful after your work has been completed, but they’re counterproductive before this.  

Customers are accustomed to treating a report as a set of recommendations, not all of which may be adopted. This is the exact opposite of what you want your proposal to achieve.

Finally, where there is style and relevance, but no substance, you’ve got yourself a presentation. This won’t work either.

In his book Pitch Anything, Oren Klaff - a venture capital consultant who pitches multi-million dollar deals for a living - found out the hard way that customers see sales presentations as “the morning’s entertainment”; a pleasant enough way to spend an hour, maybe even to learn something new, but probably not to buy anything.

If you’d rather be selling something instead, make sure your proposal gives the customer an offer they can actually buy.

Crap in, crap out

You can’t polish a turd. But unfortunately, one of the loudest and most consistent complaints I hear from proposal teams is about exactly this: getting a huge dump of crappy content at the last minute, from the very people in the business that they are trying to win work for.

Here are just a few ways that this frustration is playing out, right now, in organisations around the world:

The screed…

“Here’s one I wrote (three years ago) for another (vaguely similar, 100-page) proposal. There might be something in there you can use.”

The handball…

“Fred wrote about this in the XXX proposal. Can you ask him instead?”

The absentee (after two reminders)…

“Sorry! I completely forgot about this. What do you need me to do again?”

And let’s not overlook the passive-aggressive pushback, after four reminders, and three days after the deadline…

“I’ve been out on site for 14 days straight in outer Timbuktu and without wi-fi OR a shower. I might be able to get something to you next week.” (Just kidding! - don’t bet on it).

In my experience, there are three main reasons why this happens:

1.     Lack of skills,

2.     Lack of time, and

3.     Lack of responsibility

First, there’s a lack of skills.

Most people aren’t taught to write proposals. They learn the hard way through losses, disappointments, and kilos of red pen and criticism from higher-ups.

Many would also much rather talk than write. It’s no wonder they see proposals as a brain-draining, mind-numbing chore instead of as an exciting opportunity to win new work.

In my proposals training programs, I’ve seen a massive mindset and cultural shift among teams who previously thought this way. Training is not the only solution to the problem, but it is a very good place to start.

Next, there is always a lack of time.

Proposal deadlines have shrunk by half in the last decade, and in most organisations, there are only a handful of people who work on proposals full time.

For everyone else, it’s work that gets done ‘five to nine’ in the cracks and crannies that open up around their day job. Expecting them to produce considered, customer-focused content in this environment is a recipe for burnout and disengagement.

One simple fix is to allow people to block out time for proposal writing in their diaries – time that can’t be booked over by meetings and other priorities. Another is to reward them for their hard work, no matter what the outcome, and always make sure there is a real celebration when you win. 

And finally, there’s a lack of responsibility.

If I have learned anything from decades on this planet, it’s this: people do what they feel inclined to do.

Unfortunately, unless it is their actual job, most people just don’t feel inclined to work on proposals unless they are compelled to. After all, there are many more pressing technical and operational issues to deal with, as well as work that’s much more fun on offer somewhere else.

This leaves your proposals team begging for content and commitment when they really shouldn’t have to.

Take a look at the job descriptions of the subject matter experts and managers you most rely on for content and proposal leadership. Is contribution to proposals mentioned anywhere? No? Fix that - now.

Conversation versus presentation

A proposal is really just a conversation with a customer, albeit one where you have to fill in both sides.

Most of us would much rather talk to a customer than submit a proposal, because verbal conversations offer a feedback loop that written presentations (like proposals) do not.

In a conversation, you can get started with just a general idea of what you want to achieve. Then you can go where the conversation takes you.

Provided that you are tuned in to the customer’s reactions, it is easy to pick up when your ideas have landed and when they haven’t. It is no problem to float new ideas and try out options. The customer’s body language, tone of voice and questions will also help you to find and correct any gaps and misunderstandings.

On the other hand, in a presentation, like a proposal, you need to know exactly what you want to achieve and be well prepared before you start.

In the absence of verbal and non-verbal feedback, you will need to outline what has already been agreed, or put forward a range of well thought-out options and alternatives. And with no room for gaps and misunderstandings, your offer will need to be complete - and absolutely clear - to have any chance of being well received.

With so much on the line, it’s no wonder you would prefer to have a conversation!

So when a proposal is the only option - like when you are bidding for a competitive tender - here are three ways to make your proposal feel more like a conversation, and less like a presentation.

  1. Less boasting. Going on and on about every project you have ever done isn’t only unnecessary, it also comes across like you are catcalling at the customer from a moving car. You’ve already got their attention. Use it to engage them in their favourite topic - themselves. 
  2. Less begging. Feeling insecure? You shouldn’t be. Just because the customer has the money, doesn’t mean they have all the answers. They want or need something, and you can deliver it. Treat your proposal as a conversation of equals, and ban subservient and conditional language (like ‘would’ and ‘could’).
  3. More sharing. In The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson set out a solid base of research proving that customers value suppliers who challenge the way they think about how they can compete better or do business better. Although they may appreciate you confirming what they already know, Dixon and Adamson’s research found that there is vastly greater value in delivering insight that changes or builds on the customer’s knowledge in ways they could not have discovered on their own. You and your team are smart people and you know a lot that your customers don’t know. Impress them by sharing how you can help.

Building your proposal muscle

Getting better at proposals is like building muscle. It takes time, it takes practice, and it takes effort.

When I teach people new ways to develop proposal strategy, answer buyer questions, substantiate claims with evidence, write persuasively, or target their effort where it will help them to win, some ‘get it’ immediately; some take a little longer; and some may struggle without extra help.

If you have ever attended an inspiring training program, been super-motivated to do things better – and then ended up back in ‘business as usual’ – there is a reason for that.

The 70/20/10 model of learning & development was first developed by Morgan McCall and the Centre for Creative Leadership in the 1980s. It suggests that:

  • 70% of learning is experiential, occurring through daily tasks, challenges and practice;
  • 20% of learning is social, occurring with and through other people, like mentors, managers and co-workers; and
  • Only 10% of learning is formal, occurring through structured training courses and programs.

The 70/20/10 model acknowledges that while learning comes from many sources, experience is still the best teacher, and the most effective learning comes from doing –not simply knowing what to do.

However, formal learning remains dominant in most organisations. It’s easy to budget for workshop-based training. Workshops don’t take people away from their day job for too long.

And there is also the potential for workshops to deliver a lot of information, coupled with a boost to motivation, which builds new skills in a very short space of time.

Here are five ways to build your proposal muscle after attending proposal training.

  1. Revisit your learning. Pull out your workbooks, slides and notes from the session. Repeat the exercises. Re-read the examples, paying particular attention to the framework (not just the content).
  2. Implement useful tools, templates and processes. My proposal training programs offer new ways to organise your workflow, and methodologies that get better results in less time. Revisit these, choose which ones will work best for your business - and use them.
  3. Share what you learned with colleagues. One of the best ways to learn is to teach.
  4. Set yourself experiential challenges. Which proposal skills do you most want to improve? Make a list in priority order, and challenge yourself to work on one new skill a week.
  5. Find a mentor. A mentor is someone who has walked the path before, and can accelerate your success by busting problems, sharing tips and tricks, and offering a sounding board for your ideas.  This could be someone in your business, or an external proposals coach like me.

Have you done enough?

It is hard to avoid MasterChef on Australian TV right now, even if you’re not much chop in the kitchen.

MasterChef has been on our screens for the past ten years. It’s also on five nights a week during prime time – a saturation level of exposure.

The show is so popular that Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall even made an appearance this season (apparently Camilla is a big fan).

Though not much of a cook myself, something I find really fascinating about MasterChef is how it represents the pressure-cooker atmosphere of intense competition.

MasterChef is filmed in a big hall with an open-plan cooking environment. Each of the contestants cooks at their own bench about six feet away from the others, and can clearly see what everyone else is doing.

In such an environment, MasterChef contestants are never allowed to forget that this is a competition, and that their dishes are going to be judged against other people's.

When the judges shout ‘stop cooking!’, and the adrenalin of intense pressure fades, anxiety starts to set in. It’s then that you will often hear a contestant say:

"I hope I've done enough.”

I hope I have done enough this cook, this day, to make it through the elimination and to please the judges.

This is a mindset that those of us who work on bids and tenders can learn from.

While you’re working on a bid, locked away in your war room (if you're lucky), or your cubicle (if you're unlucky), it is easy to forget that there are others out there doing the same. Maybe a handful, maybe hundreds; all of whom really want this business too.

In answering the question, "have I done enough?" you will need to consider not only what you are doing, but what others are likely to do as well.

Fortunes can change quickly in a bidding environment, and many of the people who approach me for help with their bids and tenders are new to the experience of feeling that they need it.

Everything was working fine, they were winning their fair share of business, and then something changes.

A competitor lifts their game. And what happens to your game? It automatically drops as a result.

This is why it is so important to continually re-invest in your proposal effort.

Because if you don't, it doesn't matter how good it was yesterday, or three months ago, or six months ago – it is not going to be enough to keep you winning forever.

How long should your proposal be?

One of the most common questions I am asked about proposals is ‘how long does my proposal need to be?’ The answer is, ‘only as long as it takes to get you hired’. 

Every week, I conduct independent reviews of proposals (both successful and unsuccessful) for organisations who find it impossible to get good feedback from customers, and are keen to improve their success rates.

One of the consistent findings from these reviews is that shorter proposals are usually more successful than very long ones.

That’s because a proposal is a commercial document with only one purpose; to have the customer say ‘yes’ to you. Anything that doesn’t fit this purpose – like including irrelevant material, or long, wordy descriptions of your credentials or methodology – gives the customer reasons to say ‘no’ to you instead. 

Recently, I conducted a study into supplier experiences of competitive tendering and dealing with procurement. A summary of the report from this study, Smiling But Sinking, was published by SmartCompany

One of the most striking findings from the study was how fast proposal deadlines are shrinking, and suppliers are now given only half the time that they believe they need.

About a decade ago, the most common timeframe given to respond to a competitive tender was about four weeks, but this has changed.

Most participants said that they are now given two weeks to respond to a tender in their business or industry (52.8%), while almost the same percentage (50%) said that they believe four weeks is a reasonable timeframe.  

97.6% agreed that tender deadlines are getting shorter, while response requirements either have not changed or have increased.

You’d think that shorter deadlines would be a good thing, because this would result in shorter proposals. Instead, we are seeing the opposite.

Shorter deadlines are delivering longer, more generic, and more confusing proposals, rather than shorter, more customer-specific and more relevant ones.

  • In our time-poor state, we are becoming even more reliant on canned content that is copied and pasted from previous submissions, regardless of how relevant it is.
  • With less time to plan and build win strategies, we are also becoming more anxious, throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the proposal just in case it later proves to be important. 
  • We have less time than ever to edit our proposals and remove superfluous material. (An age-old problem: 17th century inventor Blaise Pascale famously said, “I have made this letter longer than usual, as I have not had time to make it shorter”).

Time is the new money.

Respect the customer’s time, and your own time, by spending it where it will matter most – on giving them reasons to hire you.

Sell the job before you do the job

In my proposal-writing workshops, I train hundreds of technical professionals every year, including engineers, architects, project managers, environmental scientists, quantity surveyors, and market researchers.

When I ask them what they like the most about proposals (apart from ‘winning them’), they will usually say ‘designing the methodology’, or ‘coming up with the price’.

Technical professionals don’t see themselves as salespeople, and may argue that they didn’t work for years to get good at their job so they could become one.

In reality, technical professionals have to win the job before they get to do the job. This means that their ability to successfully pitch for work has a profound impact on their job satisfaction, and impact they can make in their chosen career.

However, writing successful proposals requires a different skillset to the technical skillset with which they approach their other work.

When preparing a pitch or proposal, a technical professional who prioritises the work, and focuses mostly on themselves and the way they will do it, comes across as a ‘boffin’.  Unless they have exceptional technical skills, boffins are likely to find themselves stuck doing routine work because they are not seen as customer friendly.

A professional who prioritises the technical work, but focuses on the customer, is seen as a ‘craftsman’.  Customers appreciate craftsmen and their obvious pride in their work, but aren’t always prepared to pay a premium for it.

In contrast, a professional who prioritises the commercial outcome, but focuses mostly on themselves, will come across as a ‘salesman’. This is an uncomfortable position that most technical professionals will actively avoid.

Fortunately, those who are able to prioritise both the commercial outcome, and the customer, will be seen as a ‘champion.’ These are the technical professionals that customers really value – and want to hire again and again.


To win the work you deserve to win, a technical professional needs to be commercially smart, not just technically smart.

This means a shift from seeing opportunities mostly from your own perspective, and with the work as your priority, to seeing things from the customer’s perspective, and giving your best thinking to the outcomes that the work will achieve.

What job did you hire that product to do?

Here is an idea that may change the way you sell – and buy. 

Customers don’t simply buy products and services, they ‘hire’ them to do a job. Therefore it’s not enough just to understand customers – we must also understand the jobs they need to be done. 

This is the argument put forward by Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen in Competing Against Luck – The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice

Christensen developed the theory of disruptive innovation in 1995, and has since written 12 books on the topic of innovation in business.

Recently, however, after decades of research, Christensen and his co-authors on Competing Against Luck came to an important conclusion: our long-held belief, that understanding the customer is the secret to successful innovation in business, is wrong. 

Christensen explains a ‘job’ as the progress that a person is trying to make in a particular circumstance. That ‘circumstance’ is intrinsic to their definition of a job. A job can only be defined, and a successful solution created, relative to the specific context in which it arises. When we buy a product or service, we are ‘hiring’ a way of getting that job done. 

For example, let’s say you are the owner of a business that wants to grow but is struggling to keep up with demand. You have poured a lot of time and money into the business and are desperate to see it succeed. The underlying ‘circumstance’ is the need to justify your investment, while also keeping customers and staff happy so that the business is sustainable. Therefore, your ‘jobs’ might be to find a way to take more customer calls, boost flagging staff morale, or fill last-minute product orders.

There are a number of products and services you could ‘hire’ to solve each of these jobs. Some will fit the underlying circumstances better than others. If you hire them and they work, you’re likely to hire them again. And if they don’t, you will look around for other options.

According to Christensen, customer choice is about progress, not products.

His Theory of Jobs To Be Done focuses on deeply understanding your customer’s struggle for progress, and then creating the right solution and attendant set of experiences to ensure that you solve your customer’s jobs well, every time. 

This methodology has been successfully implemented by respected companies and fast-growing start-ups including Amazon, Intuit, Uber, and Airbnb. 

By understanding why customers to “hire” a product or service, any business can improve its sales by creating products and services that customers not only want to hire, but that they will pay premium prices for. 

The Theory of Jobs To Be Done is just one of the applied methodologies we cover in the Win More Work With Existing Customers training program, which will give you a solid understanding of what drives your customers’ wants and needs, and help you build a commercial value proposition that delivers them. 

This workshop is only two weeks away, so don’t miss your last chance to book.

Are you living the same frustrations over and over?

Selling can be frustrating sometimes. We can’t change what customers do. We can’t change what competitors do either. But we can change the way we show up ourselves, and in the process, get a better outcome.

The Bill Murray comedy movie Groundhog Day turns 25 this year. It has become a classic not just because it’s funny, but because we have all had that experience of being stuck in a pattern that we simply cannot break out of.

Recently I was stranded at Tamworth Airport for four hours, waiting for a new plane to arrive. The snack bar was shut, and Groundhog Day was the only movie I had on my iPad.

As the movie started to roll, I realised it actually was Groundhog Day (February 2). Instead of a Philadelphia winter, Tamworth was sweltering through a blistering New England summer– parts of the region were entering their 40th consecutive day over 35 degrees.

While my fellow stranded passengers and I were wishing for air-con, Bill Murray trudged through the snow as Phil Connors, a weatherman sent to Punxatawney, Philadelphia each year, to cover the annual Groundhog Day festival.

Phil hates the festival, is rude and dismissive of everyone he meets, and generally just a pain in the butt to be around.

To cut a long story short, the next morning Phil and his crew find themselves waking up at 6am to Groundhog Day again.

The same events repeat that day, and every day after that. Pretty soon, Phil has had enough. Even after driving off a cliff in frustration, he just keeps up waking up every day, the same day, at 6am.

Eventually, Phil starts noticing other people and starts becoming a nicer person. He brings coffee and pastries to his crew, he buys food for a homeless man, and he stops to help three elderly ladies with their broken down car.

In the end, everyone loves Phil. He gets the life he wants, and finally the day stops repeating.

Groundhog Day shows us that we can’t always change our circumstances. We can’t change what other people do. But we can change ourselves, and when we do, we create the space for good things to happen.

It may sound obvious, but if what you’re doing to sell your service or product is not achieving the results you believe you deserve, maybe you need to change something.

Success in sales is really just a case of ready, aim and fire. If your sales pitch isn’t connecting, there’s a good chance you are spending too much time in the ‘aim and fire’ part – targeting customers and firing off pitches, proposals and presentations that simply are not hitting the mark.

Taking the time to rebuild your commercial value proposition – how to talk about what you do so customers want to buy it – could be all it takes to stop you living the same frustrations

over and over again.